Hey kids, it’s time to dust off the Wayback Machine again and go forward into the past! Let’s set the controls for the New York of 1980 and, um, yeah, let’s go ahead and bring that Glock, too. Can’t be too careful.
In the ocean of pop, what’s riding the cresting wave is Disco and, God help us all, Urban Cowboy. What we really want to focus on, though, is what was happening below the surface. Down among the kelp and the octopus lairs is what’s really happening. Punk rock, according to which source you tend to credit, has either died on the vine or is just coming into its own. Attendant on Punk are the more commercially viable New Wave and the genre that will take twenty-some years to burst through into the consciousness of your average Jane or Joe, Post-Punk. Templates are still being codified, and the boundaries between genres are as porous as ever. In other words, Punk isn’t yet synonymous with hardcore. You can get away with things now that will get you bottled off stage in about three or four years.
In the effort to strip Rock down to its bare essentials, some proponents of the new music have, somewhat ironically, rediscovered the joys of Garage Rock. It’s ironic because Garage was closely tied to Psychedelia, the source of Prog and Pomp Rock and therefore the bane of every punk drawing breath at the time. Still, the primal howl of the stunted teenage degenerates bashing out countless hormonal odes to gettin’ some echoed across that great generational gap between the early boomers and their later, spikier cohort. Fashions may change, but thwarted adolescent urges are eternal. The big difference this time out was the urban nature of the garagistas; in the sixties, the creation of garage rock had been primarily a suburban delight. Now it had come to the city, and teenagers in the suburbs (of whom I was one) knew garage rock only as an amusing footnote to rock & roll history. If we thought of it at all, we thought of it as trash rock.
One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, as they say.
And so it is that we find one Marty Thau, the man who sold bubblegum rock to a grateful America, erstwhile manager of the New York Dolls (if such a title may be bestowed upon the wrangler of the unmanageable) and discoverer of Blondie, sniffing the streets* for the latest in Rock and Roll fun. The first wave of NY punk bands being already signed and the No Wave scene being, generally, somewhat less than inspiring, he signs five up & comers to his Red Star label for a compilation survey of the garage end of “the scene”, as it was referred to back in the day. Each band will record two cuts to appear together on one album. all produced by Jimmy Destri, the keyboard player for Blondie, and all ten tracks were recorded and mixed over the course of five nights at House of Music Studios in New Jersey. Pretty quick work, really. Five bands, each attempting, in their own way, to re-interpret the spirit of Garage Rock for the Nineteen Eighties. Thus was born 2 X 5.
Listening to the album at this remove from the original time, it’s tempting to throw the garage label out the window and tar it all with the New Wave brush. This would be a mistake. Granted the ubiquity of the dreaded synthesizer might lead one astray, but the thing to keep in mind is the overwhelming desire of the time to be modern, at all costs. And what could have been more modern to the 1980 mind than that staple of cheesy Sci-Fi flick soundtracks, the synthesizer. Technology has recently made them relatively affordable AND small enough to be easily portable. Practical, in other words – much more so than the temperamental Farfisa organ, the keyboard of choice for first-gen. Garage bands. Also, as I believe I mentioned earlier, it was a time of sonic experimentation, a time when the boundaries of what was cutting edge and what was merely bleeding were not yet well defined. Remember, Talking Heads, Television and The Ramones had all advanced under the banner of Punk, so things were still relatively wide open.
Tracks 1 and 8 belong to The Fleshtones, arguably the most recognizably garage band of the setand, honestly, the only band involved in the project that I’d heard before. The opening track, “Shadow-Line”, is so angular in its attack that it almost sounds as if it might be a tiny bit Devo influenced. There is a sense of the replication of the sound of machinery, anyway. Once the chorus kicks in, though, we’re squarely in garage territory, rather than the factory floor. The harmonica at the end seals the deal. “F-F-Fascination” is even more rooted in the classic garage sound, perhaps more so than any of the other tracks appearing on this disc. That harmonica from the first track is all over this one, and the call-and-response vocals add to the “authenticity”, if I may use so loaded a word. Their work here follows the trend of the disc – what was Side Two on the original album comes off better than Side One.
The Revelons took the number two and number nine slots. “Red Hot Woman” hearkens back even further than the days of the garage, back to when rockabilly stalked the earth. It’s a stripped down homage of sorts to Billy Lee Riley, he of “Flying Saucers Rock & Roll” and (oddly enough) “Red Hot”, which were essentially the same great song. It chugs a long on a 4/4 beat, with minimal Chuck Berry riffing under yelping vocals in the style of Mr. Riley. And then there’s the 83-second-long, one-note guitar “solo”. 83 seconds may not seem like very long, but it’s a fucking eternity in the middle of a song that only runs 3:11 itself. It’s simultaneously hypnotic and annoying. Their second track, “Cindy” has more of a garage tang to it, with the extra added bonus of being much less derivative. The “1, 2, 3, 4, love” vocal hook will stick with you for awhile.
Remember the Stray Cats? Sure you do. They were the MTV face of the short-lived mid-80’s rockabilly revival. Brian Setzer was the frontman/guitarist. Well, it turns out he didn’t exit the womb with a quiff. Nope, he spent some time in a band called Bloodless Pharaohs first. Hey, look, here they are! Cut # 3, “Bloodless Pharaohs”, is the longest track on the disc. It clocks in at a hefty 6:03, most of which is taken up by the mysterioso instrumental intro, all swirling synths and jumpy guitar lines. The actual groove of the song kicks in at the two-minute mark, and from there on out the song sounds like a mash-up of spy movie music and the local horror movie show. The singer features the goofy “Dracula has risen from the grave” vocal style so popular at the time, deep and doomy. It’s actually very similar to what Danny Elfman did in Oingo Boingo, now that I think of it. Setzer acquits himself nicely, both here and on the other BP tune, “Nowhere Fast”. (That’s track #6, for those of you scoring at home.) He adds some nervous textures to “Bloodless Pharaohs”, and his solo on “Nowhere Fast” really makes the otherwise so-so tune work.
Next up: The Comateens. I gotta say, “Overseas” is the weakest cut of the set. It’s a speedy slab of synth-driven New Wave nerdrock, all about the inability of modern man to communicate & angst & all that sorta thing. Sample lyric: “A foreign language in my ear / I get real mad, I throw a spear / The person dies, I start to laugh / I run right home and draw a graph”. Closing track “Late Night City” fares much better. An ode to the nocturnal joys of urban living, it’s not trying so desperately to be clever. Consequently, it comes off much less overwrought. The keyboard leaves a little room for the guitar, and both co-exist happily. It’s actually pretty fun, which is a big step up from “Overseas”.
Last, yet certainly not least, we have the Student Teachers. I feel bad for them. If they’d come along about 5 – 7 years later, they might possibly have been huge. Track 5 on the album, “Looks”, would have fit right in the on, say, the Breakfast Club soundtrack. You may perceive that as a dis on my part, but I assure you it’s not. It’s jangly synth-pop, and it has a place at the table. We could say the same for “What I Can’t Feel”, with its hyper-caffienated guitar line, jaunty keyboards and “na-na, na-na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na-na, na, na, na” vocals. My notes say “alienation with a smiley face”, which seems accurate. I don’t really see much of the garage in it, but it’s darn swell pop and that ain’t nothin’ to sneeze at or upon.
And there you have it. 2 X 5 is a time capsule of sorts, an artifact of a time and an aesthetic. That “modern sound” may not have aged the way we thought it would, but hey, what does? Predicting the future is next to impossible, as anybody who’s read any amount of science fiction from the fifties can tell you. Better to just enjoy the disc for what it is – 32 minutes of fun.
* Metaphorically speaking, of course; from what I’m told, no one would want to literally sniff the streets of New York at the time, or indeed now, for that matter.